Monday, November 21, 2016

Scattered thoughts from San Antonio

I haven't attended the American Academy of Religion annual meeting since before I went to China. Even before that I'd been losing the hang of it... Most members gravitate towards a few fields, listening and presenting to a stable group of scholars who share their specialties. (It can seem a huddle of parallel subdisciplinary conferences criss-crossed by networking.) Never having found a group I was interested enough in to go to all of its sessions, I've always been a grazer. Increasingly AAR has for me been about dipping into fields and communities of scholars new and unfamiliar to me. This year fit that (non-)pattern.

Status of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer Persons in the Profession Committee 
Expendable Bodies, Knowledge, and Positionality

Religion and Ecology Group 
The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Religion and Ecology Group

Animals and Religion Group and Religion, Affect, and Emotion Group 
Book Session: Engaging Donovan Schaefer's Religious Affects (Duke University Press, 2015)

Presidential Address
Serene Jones (Union Theological Seminary), Revolutionary Love

Two Spirits and Her Giveaway 

Teaching Religion Section and Chinese Religions Group 
Teaching Religions of China in Practice (Princeton University Press, 1996)

Public Understanding of Religion Committee 
Writing Religion Online: Scholars and Journalists in Conversation

I had a reason to be at each of these (I was one of the panelists at the very first), but it felt pretty scattershot. I should have known the second and second-to-last, being retrospective, would be only incidentally illuminating. Addressing exciting new work, the third and the last were the most engaging. The most inspiring - in that sinking-feeling way of true prophecy - was Serene Jones' James Baldwin-heavy presidential address. The somewhat corny (and non-academic) sounding "revolutionary love" seemed a good presidential theme when she chose it two years ago, she told us. Now, with forces of hate newly empowered by the sanction of a president elect she did not hesitate to call "fascist," it's indispensable. The love in question isn't sentimental feeling but fierce in its commitment to truth and justice. Like Baldwin Jones' love is grounded in owning the truth of America's foundational racism, which truth one can set us free: Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

Was seven sessions really all I could squeeze in to a two-day stay, you may ask? Well, yes. It was a weekend. On Sunday morning I went to mass at the Catholic cathedral of San Fernando. I'm so glad I did.
So let me widen the focus a little. AAR was my first trip since the election, and it took place in Republican-supporting Texas (albeit in the "island" of San Antonio). If it's a pretty good bet that the people you run into here in New York didn't vote for the new regime, in Texas it's not. Especially if you're white. What I began to feel from the minute I headed to the subway for the airport was the newly unassailable status of my whiteness. In the subway I found myself standing next to a seat where an older bearded Muslim man sat, perhaps Bangladeshi - but I realized that I was really standing over him, capable of harm. In the plane, a charming abuela was sitting next to me, and offered me the first of her biscuits. Just nice, perhaps, but also: how did she know I wasn't a white man who needed placating? In the taxi to my hotel, the driver was a Muslim too, perhaps from Africa. Perhaps just polite as folks are in the South, but I couldn't know.

In each case I wondered if I should say something to reassure them that I welcome them as fellow citizens, deplore the xenophobia of the white nationalism which now has a foothold in the White House, voted against it... but even supposing I could reminded me that I could also not, that there was some sort of force field around me of potential threat to them. I recalled a time, a few days before, when I stood above an older Muslim woman in the subway, thinking I was protecting her (there have been many stories of Muslims harassed even in New York's subways) - but that, too, was an experience of force, of violence. Later, recalling some passages in Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, it occurred to me that folks like me have been in that force field all along - even if it was only our non-white interlocutors who felt it.

This sense of an unwanted aura of violent impunity followed me the whole time I was in Texas. It felt like how I imagine it must feel to carry a gun - Texas is an open-carry state. (And "Don't mess with Texas" is all about guns; at a tourist gift shop I peeked into, a significant number of souvenirs had images of guns, including their most popular T-shirt, emblazoned with the words "Texans don't call 9-1-1.") But even before that, when citizens were entitled to bear arms but not show them, whiteness was surely like carrying a gun. Coates describes the violence behind whites' saying "I could have you arrested" to men of color - though it doesn't even have to be said. After the election of 2016, I could have you deported, or worse. (So the first thing I did on coming home was find a clothespin, inadequate though that gesture is, and affixed it to my favorite fleece.)

But back to San Antonio, and to San Fernando. That mass was the first church service I've been to since the election, and, at this their main English Sunday mass, many attending appeared to be Anglos... Who was carrying what political/racial views? Would the priests - the officiant from India, accompanied by a white man and a Latino deacon - tread lightly, or find a way to convey the Pope's recent condemnation of rising xenophobia? I was disconcerted that it was the Solemnity of Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, and the final day of Pope Francis' Jubilee Year of Mercy. Would truth be spoken to power?

It was, though perhaps not in a way all understood. The sermon was delivered by the white man, who turned out (I saw him after) to be a fellow AAR visitor, a Dominican who teaches at a Catholic seminary north of Chicago. He mumbled a little, as professors sometimes do, and quoted, as we do often: the atheist Ernst Bloch no less. The world is not true; truth will be brought into the world only by human beings, and then the world will feel like a homecoming. From his pronunciation of Bloch's name (and later Dostoyevsky - yes, the Grand Inquisitor) I sensed he was a native German speaker. Perhaps that is what inspired him to focus not just on Christ, the crucified king, but on the historicity of this feast day. It was introduced in 1925, we learned, in response to the collapse of western societies after WW1 - he named Russia, Austria, Germany - and a warning against the false promises of earthly kings.

I can't tie up these thoughts with a pretty little bow, as I often do in this blog. Instead: The nativity scene below, found at the airport gift shop, might not be intended as a depiction of a grim fugitive family under the white star of Texas, but that's what I see. Advent starts Sunday, but the world of truth is one we have to claim right away. Masks off!

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